A sit-down with Annette Paterakis – the world known equestrian mental coach

As riders we know that the mental part of our equestrian life is well as important as the physical one. To be able to stay on top of your game and in connection with the horse, your brain needs to play along with your body. We met up with world known equestrian mental coach Annette Paterakis to learn about fixed mindsets, self-confidence and of course to get life hacks that actually work.


By: the Editors
Published: June 19th 2019

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– Our brain is designed to very quickly respond to potential danger by either fighting or running away. If we can’t do that we simply freeze. The fight or flight mode easily translates to us as riders. Your whole body changes. You release hormones, adrenaline and cortisol to the point where your whole upper body becomes shorter and tense. Your breathing changes and you stop thinking rationally. You get disconnected from your horse and often you start pulling back. It’s not that you are a bad rider, it’s just that the fight or flight mode kicks in. 

We stand in the beautiful surroundings of Stall Kubberød in Moss. It’s Annettes first time in Norway and today the weather is doing us a small favour, mixing the smell of rain with small rays of sunlight. Her own journey with mental coaching started with herself. As a young rider her competitiveness cast a shadow over a blooming career as a showjumper. The overly high demands she posed on herself made a vicious circle she didn’t know how to break out from. The poles went down in the competition ring, and the joy of riding disappeared with her confidence. That’s how it started. She found a mental coach to help her through her challenges and turn bad patterns into good habits.

 
 
How we respond to pressure is very individual. Some riders perform better under pressure, while others tense up. Common for all humans is that we need a little pressure to do well. Without it we’re not focused enough, but each individual needs to recognise what works best for them in order to stay focused, without getting too stressed.
— Annette Paterakis
 
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Deal with failure like Churchill

 

Annette observes a mare and her foal trotting around on the grass. Her voice and body language shows confidence. She tells us about her new book project, her urge to always develop and a curiosity that never stops.


– One should always continue to seek new knowledge. Like for example in my newest book project, I’ve interviewed some of the best showjumpers in the world. I felt like I needed their stories to both learn from and to portrait the reality of a 5* rider’s everyday life. To get their point of view regarding mental challenges and how they cope with all the pressure. 

Olivier Philippaerts is one of Pateraki’s interview objects. Get to know the Philippaerts twins here!


It’s starting to rain as we move back to the meeting room where fifteen Norwegian riders soon will enter for their second day of her workshop. Being a good coach is all about asking the right questions, according to Annette. On the million-dollar-question on how to deal with failure and mistakes, she refers to a saying Peder Fredricson quoted when she interviewed him.

 
 
When I asked Peder how he deals with failure and mistakes, his answer was simple and to the point: “I always remember Winston Churchill’s saying, that success is the ability to move from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm”. 
— Annette Paterakis
 
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The daily habits

In her own everyday life as a coach she strongly believes in daily habits. She simply can’t say express that enough. 


– The brain believes what you tell it. That is why good and positive habits are so important. It might sound easy and almost a little silly, but it works. The brain is wired to focus on the negative. The problem. We need to train our brain and educate it to be able to change a negative mindset. 


She admits that it might sound simple, and it somewhat kind of is, because the exercises are easy to do. Start the day with a breathing exercise, visualise your best round ever to create a positive mindset right from the start, or give gratitude to where you are right now rather than where you desperately want to be in three or five years. 


– The challenge is to truly make them part of your life. Not just for a brief period of time, but in a long-term perspective. It’s not as easy as it might seem, but if we apply them and use them every day, they are real game changers in order to help us appreciate the journey rather than just hunt results.

 
 
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Killing a fixed mindset

 

– The human brain is designed to either fight or flight when a dangerous situation occurs, and the brain doesn’t just simply forget after a potential danger. Fear is one of the most powerful emotions we can experience, and it has helped us survive over thousands of years. That’s why I keep repeating the importance of creating good everyday habits. In addition, we need to talk about how to change a bad pattern and focus on the right things. 


Annette has worked most with women but states that an increasing number of men are searching for advice and mental training. In her experience, women tend to blame mistakes on themselves and beating themselves up, while men more often blames the surroundings.


– Even though I don’t recommend blaming others, I think many riders can learn something from this attitude. Because what happens is that if I beat myself up every time, the negative actually becomes reality and my confidence will get worse – and the results will most likely be bad. This will then become my story. 

 
 
 
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3 questions to kill a fixed competition mindset:

1. What went well?
Emphasise to your brain what went well. Repeat it and focus only on the good parts.

2. Instead of asking yourself what went bad or wrong, use a positive language:
What could have gone better? Recognise the patterns in your riding. Pick the patterns that you want to work on rather than fixate on the one fence down or dressage exercise that went wrong. 

3. How am I going to work on this?
Be as specific as possible and pick out about three exercises that you are going to work on. Make a plan for how you will systematically work on changing the pattern together with your trainer.

 
 
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“Is it even possible?”

The room is filled with smalltalk as the fifteen workshop participants find their seats. Annette asks how everyone is doing today, and if they managed to start the day with the morning routine. The crowd is a little quiet at first, but one by one they start telling her about their very first step towards a new routine. Annette is enthusiastic as she listens. Keeps eye contact with everyone, gives positive feedback and specific advice. Time flies and at the end of the session she pulls out a gym ball as a final challenge. 


– Ok, so the task is that I want each and every one of you to come up here and place your knees on the ball, balancing on top of it while shaking my hand. 


The first one to go sits down again after an unsuccessful attempt. “Is it even possible? Can we see you do it?”. With a smile, Annette replies:


– Do you need me to do it to believe that it’s possible? Ok, but can I ask you – why didn’t you ask me any questions on how to do it while you gave it a try? 


Annette puts her legs and hands on the gym ball, focusing on finding her balance she eventually removes her hands from the ball. Sitting straight on top of it, she reaches out her hand for a handshake. She asks the girl to try again – and in less than 10 seconds she completes the task. 


– Isn’t it amazing how the human brain works? She saw that I could do it and suddenly she believed that she could do it. It went from “is this even possible?” to a handshake just like that. The reason I asked why she didn’t ask me any questions during her first attempts is because I want you all to remember to always ask questions. We often have this problem asking questions when given a task to solve, like we have to manage everything alone. I want you to challenge that mindset as well, because you know what? You should never have to solve a problem alone.